Students, parents excited as classes begin across the Peninsula

Contact Reporterejhammond@dailypress.com

HAMPTON – Trinity Outlaw showed no signs of being nervous for the first day of school.

She confidently walked up to her first-grade teacher, Toymeka Rogers, on Tuesday morning and wished her a happy birthday.

Trinity gave Rogers a present, kissed her mom goodbye and plopped herself on the floor alongside her classmates at Andrews PreK-8 School.

Trinity, 5, had been preparing for the day for awhile, said her mother, Melanie Outlaw. There were no tears or hesitation about moving up to first grade.

"She was super organized and already had everything done — her outfit, her hair, her book bag and her present for her teacher," Melanie Outlaw said. "So she told me, 'I'm going to walk in, I'm going to say "Happy birthday" to my teacher, and then I'm going to start my day.' "

Rogers was one of about 20,000 students across Hampton starting the school year on Tuesday. Superintendent Jeffery Smith visited staff and students at 34 sites across the division, from food and nutrition services to all 32 schools — a feat that his pedometer said took 21,197 steps.

In his travels across the division, Smith posed for "First day of fourth grade" photos at Kraft Elementary School and tracked the 160-plus buses delivering students to schools. He stopped by Andrews, too, where staff had an extra dose of enthusiasm thanks to its projected "Full accreditation" rating this year.

"That's a big accomplishment, so we are proud of the success that we have made here," said Principal Jeffrey Blowe. "The staff is excited, the parents are excited, the students are excited because they're the ones who actually worked hard last year to make this happen."

All in all, it was the average first day for the school division with few hiccups, said spokeswoman Diana Gulotta.

"As far as I can tell, everything's gone pretty well," Gulotta said. "We did have several people register on the first day, but that's really not out of the ordinary. ... It's been – knock on wood – quiet."

Newport News Public Schools likewise had an uneventful first day, even with the opening of the first new school in 13 years.

Discovery STEM Academy, near the corner of Chestnut Avenue and 17th Street, had a few missing ceiling tiles and patches of paint on some walls as construction wraps up inside, but was otherwise ready for its approximately 400 students.

Students eagerly entered their new classrooms, which are full of modern, flexible furniture and big, floor-to-ceiling windows after greeting their teachers. Parents looked around and took their time leaving the building, and one mom exclaimed, "This is a nice school."

Yolanda Hardy lingered in the doorway of Jennifer Nemo's classroom for a few moments after she dropped off her daughter, Sydnei.

Sydnei, 8, had spent the last several grades at Magruder Elementary School, which Discovery STEM replaced. She started third grade on Tuesday.

"She woke up this morning and said 'Mommy, I'm so excited.' ... I don't know who's more excited, me or her, for the new school, because I think it's very nice," Hardy said. "It looks really good, it does. I think that they have more resources, more room to space out and not be on top of each other. It looks modern, it looks brighter and it makes the kids more excited to learn, because it is brighter and something new to look at."

Gloucester

After 15 years, Stephanie Sowers still fights back first-day jitters when she welcomes students to her seventh-grade science class at Peasley Middle School.

"I love the first day of school. Although I still get nervous just like the kids," she said Tuesday. "I like the energy of the fresh start – new beginnings."

Gloucester's current teacher of the year said the first day back to school went well.

Superintendent Walter Clemons agreed. The division had a slight issue first thing Tuesday morning with phones and Internet but it was resolved quickly, Clemons said.

Buses ran on schedule, with just a few arriving only minutes late, which is typical for the first day, Assistant Superintendent John Hutchinson said.

"The kids are great. They were kind to each other and participated in class discussion well," Sowers said. "I enjoy getting to know them and helping them learn the curriculum. It's pretty interesting to most kids and we usually have a good time along the way."

Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight County Schools' first day went smoothly, aside from minor bus rescheduling after a couple drivers called off, said spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

"We had a few buses that were a little late getting in because we had to locate some substitute drivers, but everyone was patient and understanding," Briggs said.

Kids across elementary, middle and high schools were coming back to new furniture, including a new collaborative learning space at Smithfield High School and an addition of yoga balls and mats at Westside Elementary School, Briggs said. A tweet from Superintendent Jim Thornton had a photo of kids using the mats as "comfortable seating" as they worked on an assignment.

Central office staff joined Thornton in visiting schools, reporting to Briggs that children were put to work in different ways. A teacher at Westside, for example, was asking kids to find their home towns on a map using iPads.

"They got started on learning on day one," Briggs said.

Mathews

Superintendent Nancy Welch said that Tuesday was an exciting moment as she greeted students at Lee-Jackson Elementary School alongside administrators and School Board members Linda Hodges and Virginia Richards.

"The energy level just tripled this morning when all the students came back," Welch said.

There were lots of smiling faces and a few tears — though mainly from parents, Welch said — as the division welcomed kindergartners from the class of 2029. Tuesday's enrollment from all three schools stood at around 1,080.

Everything went very smoothly, from transportation to food service, she said.

"They're all full steam ahead," Welch said. "All the hard work paid off this summer getting everything prepped. We are looking forward to a good school year."

Poquoson

Poquoson City Public Schools Superintendent Jennifer Parish said it was a "normal first day" for the school division, which serves about 2,100 students across its four schools.

Williamsburg-James City County

At Matthew Whaley Elementary School, Chloe Williams, 6, was the epitome of back-to-school excitement as she sat in the carpool line, waiting to start her first day of first grade.

"I'm excited for more homework," she said. "I like homework."

While images of worksheets danced in Williams' head, Matthew Whaley kindergarten teacher Kerry Armbruster talked about how to instill a love for learning.

"Today is all about making learning fun," she said as she described the kindergarten daily routine filled with singing, dancing, yoga, gardening and life lessons.

At Lafayette High School, a group of men from First Baptist Church of Williamsburg greeted bleary-eyed students as they walked into school shortly after 7 a.m.

The Rev. Reginald F. Davis, the lead pastor at First Baptist Church Williamsburg, said the men were there to encourage the students – especially the black students who make up roughly a quarter of the school's population.

"There were times when (black people) couldn't get educated," said Kenneth Bailey, associate minister of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg.

"Now, there are so many other things going on to stop them from being productive with their education. We're here to let the world know we realize what is going on. It's our moral obligation to help these young people prosper."

School division spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said there were no major issues with transportation, although the schools are ironing out minor wrinkles.

York

As students filed into Waller Mill Elementary School in York on Tuesday morning, many marveled at the new portion of their school as teachers and parents helped them find the correct classroom.

"We've had new renovation all over the school," said Principal Jennifer Goodwin. "The students, for the most part, are seeing it for the very first time."

The changes include new classrooms on both sides of the campus. The front of the school, where buses dropped students and parents walked their children to the door, is newly painted.

Goodwin greeted children and families as they entered. Her aim is to make the children feel welcome.

"These are sweet kids," Goodwin said. "We're very glad to have them."

School division spokeswoman Katherine Goff said that it was a fairly typical first day, but that around 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, a school bus stopped at railroad tracks along Route 17 and was struck from behind by a vehicle.

No students were on board at the time, she said.

Staff writers Reema Amin, Frances Hubbard, Ryan McKinnon and Wesley Wright contributed to this report. Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.

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